Last week, I posted part 1 of what I call "The A cappella Pop Quiz." This is not a quiz to test your knowledge about a cappella music (though that's on the way...I promise). The A cappella Pop Quiz is designed to test your a cappella group's knowledge on common singing techniques and rehearsal practices. Part 1 was all about correct vocal technique. You can read it here:
This week, the answers are slightly more opinionated. I'm basing my "correct" or "incorrect" answers on common choral practices and my own opinions of directing a music rehearsal, so feel free to disagree with the answers.
For the best effect, have everyone in your group take the quiz and compare the answers. I think you'll be surprised by the results.
Part 2- Rehearsal Procedures
1) What is the (estimated) number of minutes per rehearsal your group spends on blending voices?
2) What is the (estimated) number of rehearsals that start exactly on time?
3) How much (estimated) time is spent on warming up your voice each rehearsal?
4) What is the (estimated) number of times members or sections are asked to sing by themselves, apart from the rest of the group?
5) What is the (estimated) number of minutes per rehearsal your group spends on stage presence and playing to the audience?
6) When you begin learning a new arrangement, how many (estimated) edits, changes, and alterations are made to it before you perform it for the first time?
7) Does your group take breaks during rehearsal? If so, how many breaks and how long are they?
8) How much (estimated) water do you drink during rehearsals? (do not include performances)
9) What is the (estimated) number of absences your most absent group member has racked up over the course of a semester?
10) How many (estimated) full group rehearsals (meaning every member is there for the ENTIRE time) do you have a month?
Answers (Don't peek)
1) If your rehearsal is 2 hours long, the answer should be 2 hours. Blending voices is the single most important thing an a cappella group can do, because you are a group, not a soloist. However, blend is easier than you think. While group members need to decide on matching vowel shapes, voice placement, and unifying musical elements, blending is really as easy as just listening more intently than you already do. Your four basses should sound like one booming bass, not four individual voices. All other sections should be the same. For an even better blend, put like rhythmic parts together and make sure they match syllables.
2) If the answer is anything but “all of them,” that’s bad. Starting exactly on time (and I mean exactly at the start of the first minute) establishes a “we mean business” attitude and you don’t even have to say a word. Serious groups start on time.
Directors must take care to end on time as well. This establishes an understanding that your individual time is valuable and cherished.
3) Most choral conductors agree that the optimal amount of warm-up time is about 10 minutes per rehearsal. Groups that meet at night could reduce this to 7-8 minutes, because the vocal cords are already warmed up from talking all day. But talking all day does not prepare you to sing. Singing preparation takes much more than that.
The first few warm-ups should focus on training one specific vocal technique, like resonance or support. The last few warm-ups should combine techniques and work on blend. At the end of each warm-up session, the group should do something musical, like improvise a circle song, sight-read a new arrangement, or transcribe a section of music by ear.
To provide an example, I’ve included my daily warm-up routine. I do this for EVERY rehearsal, with EVERY choir I conduct, and it takes roughly about 10 minutes. If you think 10 minutes is too much time to spend on warm-ups, then I believe you are not managing your rehearsal time well.
1) Relaxation exercise
2) Breathing/Posture exercise
3) Easy vocal warm up to relax the voice
4) Resonance/Support/Vowel Warm-up
5) Resonance/Support/Vowel Warm-Up
6) Range/Blend Warm-up
7) Musical mind warm-up/Blend Warm-up
8) Improvisation/Evaluation/Listening Analysis
9) Warm-up geared to the first piece of music
Let me explain this.
The relaxation exercise is anything physical your body can do to expel the stress from your day. These include stretches, rolling the neck, rolling the shoulders, etc. The most popular relaxation exercise with choral conductors today is a massage line. Every member of the choir massages the person to their left, and then turns around and massages the person on their right.
Breathing/Posture exercises prepare the body to warm-up. This means straightening up the vertebrae of the spine, relaxing the shoulders, putting an equal balance of weight on both feet, bending the knees, and keeping the body tall. This is when I would take the time to teach my singers about how to properly take a “singers breath” and we would try a support exercise to manage air flow.
Next I do an easy warm-up. This is the most sing-able phrase I can think of, starting in a low voice, so that the vocal cords are allowed time to warm-up. This includes humming or singing softly on “oo.”
The next two exercises comprise the “meat" of the warm-up. I vary the exercises every day to avoid falling into a repeatable pattern. I believe that if the warm-up routine is the same every time, your singers will NEVER give their full attention to the exercise, because they have sung it too many times.
I also vary the types of exercises. One day I’ll do a resonance exercise and then a support exercise. One day I’ll do a support exercise and then a vowel exercise, etc. There are just too many details of vocal technique to cover, and a warm-up that covers every vocal technique would take up your whole rehearsal time, so you have to pick and choose.
A resonance exercise trains the singer to place the sound they make in the mask of the face and the nasal passages. Too many singers sing from their “throat,” when they should be placing the sound as far forward as possible. See pop quiz 1 for more information about resonance.
A support exercise trains the singers to conserve air using their stomach muscles. Singing phrases on the word “ha” is a good example. Singers should take note that in a support exercise, the “h” sound, made by pushing out the stomach muscles, is AS important as the vowel “a.”
A vowel exercise trains the singer to sing one or several proper vowels in the correct mouth shape. For example, a proper “oo” should be made with small, rounded lips. A proper “ee” should maximize the singers resonance and be sung while your lips are in a vertical position, not a horizontal one. A proper “ah” should be made with the tallest jaw possible and the maximum amount of height your soft palate can reach, as if you were yawning.
For the next exercise, I choose either a range exercise, which takes high singers into their highest range and low singers into their lowest range, or I choose an exercise that teaches the singers how to “blend.” Keep in mind that ALL range exercises must be FAST, to avoid heavy sounds and damage to the vocal cords.
The next exercise alternates between a blend warm-up or a “musical mind” warm-up. I recently attended a workshop led by Matt Caruso from “Acappella Psych,” and he made an excellent point. You must train your singers to “think” harder. He introduced several warm-ups that forced us to think musically and to give as much focus as possible. Even if you this is not a musical exercise, you must coerce your singers into a focused, intelligent state before real music making can begin. (Take his Aca-Jedi class if you can.)
The next exercise alternates between three fundamental musical skills that I believe we take for granted and need to be reinforced. For this exercise, I do one of three things: I make my choir improvise a circle song or play an improv game, I make my choir watch and evaluate a different a cappella group on Youtube, or I make my choir listen to an a cappella recording and give feedback.
All three of these skills- improvisation, evaluation, and listening- are three of the national music standards. Possessing these skills makes you a more well-rounded musician. When I taught in public school, this was also where I asked my students to sight-read an unfamiliar example.
The final warm-up relates to the first piece of music we are about to rehearse. Let’s say for example that in one of your arrangements, your group is not effectively singing a crescendo or decrescendo because the word has a difficult vowel. This exercise would then be designed to simply crescendo or decrescendo on that vowel. If you design exercises that isolate musical problems, you will find that your rehearsal goes a lot smoother.
4) If the answer is anything but zero, then good for you. Sections need to blend within themselves before blending with the entire group. It’s like baking a cake (mmm…cake). Certain elements have to be mixed together in a separate bowl before the entire batter is mixed together.
5) The correct answer is “a lot.” Stage presence is just as important as sound. This does not mean choreography. This means your singers should look relaxed and professional, like they “own” the stage. Sadly, this is one of the elements I have watched become less and less important in collegiate groups, and that needs to change.
6) If the answer is zero, then I believe you are wrong. The best arrangements are tweaked during the rehearsal process. If the arranger demands that his score be followed to the letter, then he/she needs to wake up. Unless you are Mozart (and you aren’t), you will NEVER write a perfect first draft of anything, ever. My off-Broadway production was revised 11 times before it even made it to the stage. And when I mean revised, I mean completely re-written.
7) The answers should be “yes” and “frequently.” For every hour of rehearsal time, you should have at least 5 minutes of break time. If you have a two-hour rehearsal, that does not mean you should have only one 10-minute break. You should have two 5-minute breaks. This keeps the group refreshed and efficient. One long 10-minute break ALWAYS leads to a longer lapse in time and the death of rehearsal momentum.
8) Rehearsals use your voice twice as much as performances do, because you are often singing for two straight hours or talking to friends, or laughing, or whatever. For every one bottle of water you drink during a performance (which is something you SHOULD do), you should drink 1-2 bottles during rehearsal. This is especially true if your group rehearses choreography.
9) Whatever the answer is, divide the number of total rehearsals by that number. If the percentage is more than 10%, that person needs to shape up or leave. 10% is generally the college standard for excused absences during a class that can still earn a passing grade. For a 15-week class that meets three times a week, this is about 4-5 classes. After that number, the college failure or incomplete policy kicks in and it becomes impossible for that student to earn credit. If the student wants to earn an A+, the number of absences must be drastically reduced to less than 5%.
10) If you have 8-10 rehearsals a month, the answer should be 8-10. Every single rehearsal that does not have a full attendance means something you work on that day will have to be repeated. These techniques start piling up if a group member misses more than 2 rehearsals. And considering that multiple group members could be missing at any given rehearsal, the work you do is lost.
This does not mean that all absences are pointless. On the contrary. We are human beings first, group members second. Serious illnesses should be avoided, as they will undoubtedly pass to other group members. Deaths in the family take priority over everything. But my research shows that the majority of absences in a group result in one member having too many conflicts and taking too many commitments on their plate, and this is unacceptable.
These group members must prioritize their commitments. I was one of these offenders in college, and it cost me an a cappella group, a show, and a big singing gig all within the same semester, because I blew my voice out. If a group member puts the a cappella group on the low end of the priority scale, then maybe they shouldn’t sing in an a cappella group.